The Cost Of Losing Credibility

A former PR agency boss once told me, “You don’t win by being right. You win by being credible.”

That’s been ringing in my ears since the White House COVID-19 credibility crisis shifted into high gear. Credibility is among the most valuable currencies of any leader. It’s tough to watch it squandered even on an ordinary day. But in the midst of a global pandemic that has triggered a host of additional worries, it’s downright scary. And while it makes us feel clever to parse the press secretary’s statements and tweet snark about the handling of the president’s illness, it clearly goes beyond a PR problem.

White House fails transparency test

The lack of transparency around the spread of the coronavirus at the top levels of our government has further tarnished the Trump White House, our CDC, and even the Walter Reed Medical Center, among others. A September poll by ABC-Ipsos showed that 68% of Americans don’t trust the president when it comes to updates about the pandemic. Some even doubt the diagnosis itself, suspicious that it could be a stunt. Videos of the president posted from Walter Reed were parsed for edits and timestamps with a zeal that would make QAnon followers blush. No one seems to believe anything anymore.

The news that the president and several members of his inner circle have contracted the virus resulted in “worst-practices” communications by the White House. The government clearly had no plan to deal with a COVID infection in their midst. It started with a leaked story about Hope Hicks’s positive test results, followed by several hours of suspense about the president’s health status. Then, like dominos falling, the bad news just kept coming.

Yet four days later, we still don’t have answers to crucial questions about how the president contracted COVID-19 and who else was exposed. The initial briefing about the president’s health was dodgy; Dr. Sean Conley, the president’s physician, seemed to cast doubt on the timeline of events released by the White House. He was notably evasive when asked about the president’s oxygen levels. To compound the problems, after Conley’s upbeat report, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows released a statement “on background” that indicated the president’s condition was far more serious than reported.

Contradictions undermine credibility

Granted, there’s a long history of obfuscation when it comes to the health of a U.S. president. But in this case, the clumsy handling of the situation reflects the flawed management of the broader COVID-19 national health crisis. The administration and members of Trump’s family and inner circle have openly flouted the guidance from his own CDC. They have politicized the simple safety measure of wearing a face covering while denying ambivalence about masks. The key message point adopted by the administration over the weekend – that we should “live our lives” and not fear the virus – comes in direct and stunning contradiction to national guidelines. It will do nothing to protect public health.

Could an administration known for a lack of credibility have done anything differently or better? Yes. A straightforward report on the president’s health status would have been a first step, followed by disclosure of others affected and news of real actions taken to manage the outbreak – remote work, masks, contract-tracing, and the rest. But that hasn’t happened.

COVID is reality, not a reality show

The crisis has done more than finish off the administration’s credibility. It could cost well-meaning behind-the-scenes staff and members of the press their health, or worse. It has done lasting damage to our institutions. And the worst of it is that the lies, half-truths and distortions will probably continue once the president is released from the hospital.

We’ll most likely start a new chapter of the COVID reality show with only our common sense and the free press to interpret what we see and hear. It’s not the way it should be, but it’s the price of an administration that has sacrificed all credibility in pursuit of political gain.

How To Safeguard Your Digital Reputation

The foundation of a good public relations campaign is reputation management, and it’s important now. As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, we’re all concerned about protecting health. But the shutdown also threatens brand health, and not only due to lost business. Our new all-digital workstyle can impact brand and personal reputation, and not always in a good way.

COVID shutdown raises reputation risks

Office employees have been thrust into remote work, and many are using personal devices for business communications. We’re all spending far more time online than we were before, and it’s easy to be lax about digital security, social media activity, and communications with colleagues in virtual meetings. On top of that, racial justice protests have swept the country, and the political and cultural climate seems fraught. On social platforms, people are being cancelled over “cancel culture” discussions that aren’t even very clear.  Here’s how to protect your brand’s reputation and thrive even during the COVID era.

Update your digital footprint

What comes up when you google your brand – or even your own name? Make sure personal and business sites are optimized and up-to-date. They should reflect awareness of recent events and the changes in how we live and work. It’s important now to be present on key social media platforms, and to post proactively. If it’s too overwhelming to make an impact everywhere, select the two or three most relevant ones and set goals for reach and engagement.

Ramp up that digital security

Security attacks and scams increase during times of crisis, and the coronavirus shutdown has encouraged phishing and identity theft scams by bad actors. A rogue tweet or comment by an imposter is exceedingly rare, but it can be an expensive nightmare to repair the damage. Now is an excellent time to review and tighten digital security protocols with the help of an IT team. For those in professions with access to sensitive information, like risk management, legal services, and accounting, the biggest risk is probably careless use of a personal device for client business. That’s why all devices must be secure and security measures clearly communicated and enforced.

Know SEO basics

You don’t need to hire an SEO expert, but it helps to grasp the basics. For most, it comes down to an optimized website and production of fresh, high-quality content. Include keywords that people searching for your expertise will use, bu only in a natural way. For instance example, our website emphasizes phrases like “top New York PR agency” and “best technology PR” instead of less searchable copy like “our clients love us.”

Content, content, and more content

The most challenging part of building a digital reputation for many is content production, because it’s time-consuming and your quarterly editorial calendar may be scrapped when something happens….like a terrible new coronavirus that shuts down businesses. But Google rewards fresh, relevant content. Weekly posts about issues, and insights relevant to clients, customers, prospective employees, and peers is the single most powerful way to build a reputation in sync with business or professional goals.

Don’t get cancelled

Now is the time to ramp up digital and social content, yes. But it’s also important to review your brand’s social media policy, update guidelines on social content, and examine your own social posts. It’s helpful to be sensitive and think about those outside your own bubble, whatever that may be. Early on I tweeted something negative about working from home. I was quickly reminded by a stranger on Twitter that I was lucky to still have work. True enough.

Finally, bear in mind virtually no digital communication is private. Internal office emails will be shared, deleted posts can be screenshot and saved, and you may not always be muted on that Zoom when you think you are.

Renew relationships

Of course, it’s an ideal time to network with colleagues or prospects, because no one is traveling and nearly everyone is more open to it than before. Join professional online communities, and engage. Be known for your insights, collegiality, or responsiveness. Be generous with your time, ideas, and feedback. Participation in a professional community will offer a payback in search ranking support, reputation enhancement, and new relationships.

Link your brand with ideas

My grandmother used to say that small people talk about other people, but big people talk about ideas. This is true in public relations and reputation as well. Aligning your brand or name with a central idea, mission, or brand differentiator is the most authentic way to build a reputation online. It should appear in your LinkedIn profile, on your website, your Twitter profile, and be frequently mentioned in business content and earned media.

Know when to apologize

Someone criticizes you or your brand on social media. An unfair review of your business appears online and is shared. Don’t overreact, but do respond – with professionalism. If there’s a legitimate gripe, accept responsibility, apologize, and take steps to correct the situation. It’s amazing how humanizing a humble response to criticism can be for a business or personal brand.

Why PR And Marketing Matter Now

It used to be that when things got tough, the tough cut marketing and PR budgets. “Below the line” spending was lopped off the spreadsheet faster than you could say “recession.”

But that conventional wisdom was from a time when PR and marketing worked through one-way channels. They were designed to push out businesses messages through traditional media to customers. Today, brand communications is much more of a two-way street. Customer engagement isn’t something you can turn on and off. In a depressed economy, a business that maintains marketing and communications will bounce back more quickly than one that cuts its budgets.

That’s easier said than done. But there are good reasons why brands should stick with PR and marketing as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, even if in a modified way.

To be sure, the pandemic has changed everything, including how businesses market and promote their brands. In most cases, scheduled campaigns went out the window. So-called traditional marketing gave way to empathetic customer messaging around the impact of the virus and subsequent lockdowns.

A pause in ordinary, pre-COVID marketing has frozen many brands in place. There’s little new product news outside of entertainment, no innovation to announce, and no launches planned unless they’re for antibody tests or the like. Paradoxically, this has made smart PR more important than ever for brands. Here’s why.

Customer communication has never been more important

In an uncertain situation, communication matters. We’re struggling to reopen, with the virus spiking in new areas just as it settles down in others. Businesses must communicate proactively to employees, customers, and stakeholders about practical matters like business changes, measures to protect health, and the eventual return to business. It’s even more important to connect with customers about intangibles – what a business values and prioritizes as employers and corporate citizens.

Now is the time to ramp up customer-centric measures like community service and thought leadership – which classic PR programs deliver very well.

A business pause means opportunity for smaller brands

As many states contemplate reopening, smaller businesses have an opportunity to be creative. Some have already mastered new business models involving apps, customer deliveries, or new products adapted to home consumption. Some cafes and restaurants are using parking lots and sidewalks to build outdoor service opportunities. Salons have adjusted hours and redesigned to accommodate pent-up demand from clients.

Empathy is also a two-way street. The COVID-19 pandemic is unusual in that no one was spared, and no business is seen as responsible for what happened. The crisis threatens the survival of many smaller businesses, so everyone is rooting for recovery. Most people aren’t worried about whether P&G’s brands will survive the pandemic, but they’re concerned about the corner restaurant, or even the tech startup they read about last month. Some of the largest brands in the world have paused ordinary communications, which offers opportunities for smaller brands to stand up and differentiate themselves through strategic PR and marketing.

Leaders are more visible, for better or worse

In times of crisis, change, or transition, leadership is critically important. For most organizations, that means C-level communications is under scrutiny. Even in pre-COVID times the CEO had become a public spokesperson about critical matters, whether for a private or public company. Now, the spotlight shines even hotter for business leaders. A well-crafted executive PR campaign can help convey a business’s core values and future intentions through its leadership.

This is apparent in the many large-company CEOs who have pledged not to cut jobs during the COVID-19 downturn, as well as several who have taken voluntary salary reductions, like Yum Brands’ CEO David Gibbs and Marriott’s Arne Sorenson. The good will generated will pay reputation dividends for their brands long after the COVID-19 crisis has eased.

PR and content offer long-term value

Finally, many businesses, like most Americans, face an uncertain future. The go-go economy of the past decade has sharply retrenched, and it’s time to prioritize. PR, content marketing, and social media marketing offer a relatively budget-friendly and measurable way to define a brand through its own actions as well as leadership communications. This is particularly true in the high-value sectors of healthcare and crisis management, but it can hold for nearly any kind of proactive PR.

Experienced communicators know that businesses can’t turn PR and marketing on and off in a crisis. Tomorrow’s leaders should use this time to offer empathy, resilience, and leadership in their industries and communities.

COVID-19’s Impact On PR, Now And In The Future

In public relations, as in other businesses, working from home is the new normal. We have substituted in-person meetings for daily Zoom calls and happy hours are now virtual. This period of working outside the office has been an adjustment, but most PR pros have learned how to make the best out of a terrible situation.

Those of us in PR and communications have also seen a shift in the way we interact with journalists. Our approach to pitches and PR plans has adjusted to the current media cycle, which is filled with coronavirus stories. A lot has changed and we should expect many of the changes to be long-lasting. So, what impact has this new way of working already had, and how will it change our world when the pandemic is over?

Day-to-day outreach is more thoughtful

Have you noticed that all emails now start with, “I hope you are keeping safe” or “Hope you are well”? Both PR pros and journalists have had to adjust to this new work life and we’re mindful of the challenges and sensitivities involved. Now is not the time to be pitching anything self-promotional. For the moment, journalists are working almost exclusively on stories related to COVID-19. Pitching irrelevant or self-serving news will backfire. We don’t want to be blacklisted when the news cycle goes back to normal. The reason for our new sensitivity is a terrible one, but wouldn’t it be great if this new thoughtfulness became a permanent change?

Creating a crisis plan in real time

COVID-19 is a global crisis. No one was fully prepared for a pandemic of this scale. Companies have felt the impact on their business, and most have had to shift goals, strategies, and budgets to meet the challenge. In public relations, it can feel like a professional “crisis” when a client isn’t ready to pivot, cancel product rollouts, or postpone major events. It’s our job to try to make that happen., and there is one silver lining here. We now have the opportunity to incorporate lessons of COVID-19 into crisis planning for the future.  PRs can take this experience as a learning process, take what we’re seeing in the media landscape and what our clients are witnessing in day-to-day operations and turn it into more robust readiness if something like this should happen again, even on a smaller scale.

WFH? Will the lines keep blurring?

Working from home was the only option for many PR pros when it was deemed unsafe to travel to our offices, and we’re lucky to have the option. It has taken some time and ingenuity to create that perfect home office, but now we’ve made it work.  Perhaps those companies who don’t have flexible WFH policies will note a productivity increase during this time and change their policies. On the other hand, we may appreciate our away-from-home offices – including after-hours outings — more than ever once we’re permitted to return.

A permanent shift in workplace culture

We’ve gone from seeing co-workers every day to interacting only on Zoom. Normally it’s easy to pop into someone’s office for a chat about media strategy or a new client opportunity, but now most PR pros are scheduling video chats or foregoing spontaneous talk. Things we used to take for granted will seem more important when we adopt a regular work schedule again, and the longer that takes, the more appreciated they will be. Companies like ours have been doing a great job checking in with employees during a stressful and confusing period to make sure they feel supported. In a post-coronavirus world, we will want to keep dedicating that extra time to staff culture. Already, the remote working experiment has made agencies and their clients realize how valuable employee engagement and motivation are, and that insight is likely to continue after we return to “normal.” At the staff level we’ll be planning more happy hours, celebrating birthdays and personal victories in a big way, and generally going the extra distance to show how much we appreciate and missed our co-workers while everyone was isolated.

Right now we’re living and working with uncertainty. It’s not comfortable, but this, too, is an opportunity to appreciate what we previously took for granted, and to learn how to adapt to almost anything. This “new normal” will pass into another, even newer one, where our old ways of working will have changed yet again. Until then, stay in touch with your team on Slack, texting and Zoom. Be supportive and let’s welcome the “normal” that will come!

Brands Bring Substance To COVID-19 Response

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended marketing and PR for nearly every major brand. Now, five weeks into the lockdown that has decimated many business sectors, most companies have settled into a new normal. Many have learned from early mistakes or half-measures and have scrapped old campaigns for new ones that make a positive impact for employees, customers, and communities.

It’s not about the logo

Early into the social distancing phase, several brands acknowledged the situation through visuals. They changed their logos in solidarity with the new guidelines, and the effect was…awkward. The familiar McDonald’s arches were strangely pulled apart. Coca-cola sponsored a sign in New York’s (sadly empty) Times Square that featured distance between each letter of its logo, with the tagline, “Staying apart is the best way to stay connected.” While well-intended, the “quarantine” logos won mixed reviews. As Brian Braiker, former editor-in-chief of AdAge put it, “Understanding the situation, shutting up and doing something helpful is really the only way to go here.”

I tend to agree. As the pandemic and its impact have grown, many companies recognized it was time to go beyond social distancing PSAs or offers of fun branded Zoom backgrounds. It’s not about the logo; in fact, it’s not about you.

Since then, many companies have tried to inject more substance into their pandemic responses. Quite a few launched ad campaigns recognizing their own employees. Kraft/Heinz created a beautiful and empowering campaign by having factory workers shoot smartphone video ads celebrating themselves. Midwestern supermarket chain Hy-Vee produced a “hero” video homage to its grocery workers, complete with the original Bonnie Tyler soundtrack. But I couldn’t help but think – for the price of the video ads and promotion, why not simply offer extra pay to those on the front retail lines? Maybe Hy-Vee did both. But the most PR-powerful gesture may have been by Yum Brands. Its CEO announced he would forego the remainder of this year’s base salary of $900,000 to fund bonuses for 1200 general managers at its restaurants. That’s putting your money where the mouths are.

Real help for those who need it

The third phase of the pandemic has brought the most substantive PR and marketing campaigns.

Big Tech has stepped up. Google reached into its deep pockets and rolled out an $800 million program of direct financial assistance, ad credits, and grants to businesses with active Google adwords accounts. Self-serving? Sure, what helps its advertisers helps Google, but it’s real money where it’s needed. To sweeten the program, Google pledged $250 million in ad credits to the World Health Organization (WHO) and other public health agencies. It’s also throwing $20 million in Cloud services to researchers studying COVID-19 vaccines and therapies.

Facebook, meanwhile is dramatically expanding its Community Help feature to address the pandemic. It’s also increasing grants to small businesses, letting companies fundraise on their own pages, and introducing a place for people to discover digital gift cards for their favorite local businesses. WhatsApp has partnered with WHO, UNICEF, and other groups to create a Coronavirus Hub that checks facts about the virus. Facebook, too, is working to correct misinformation and rumors. But it has also used technology in an innovative way. In partnership with researchers at Carnegie Mellon, it launched a survey map of self-reported symptoms people are experiencing during the pandemic. The aggregate data makes for an interactive map of daily, county-by-county updates on symptoms.  The goal is to help officials pinpoint where supplies may be needed or predict a COVID-19 resurgence.

Youth brands fight bad info, promote mental health

Snapchat has taken a slightly different tack, but one designed for its core audience of teens and young adults. It expanded and accelerated a feature called “Here for You”, which locates safety resources from local experts when users search for topics related to “anxiety, depression, stress, grief, suicidal thoughts, and bullying.” That’s a positive move, but a more creative one was its latest AR filter, which lets users donate directly to WHO’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. It’s also giving publishers covering COVID-19 on its Discover platform a swipe-up-to-donate feature. Over 68 million Snapchatters have viewed COVID-19-related content, so the potential reach is significant.

Another on-target youth-oriented campaign is by Jansport, the backpack brand. It launched #unpackthatchallenge – a program of food donations whereby students create TikTok videos as they unpack their home desks.

Rallying around small business

But the best and most meaningful work might be done by those companies who serve the many small businesses that were slammed by the pandemic. Intuit’s QuickBooks, for example, has teamed with GoFundMe for a small business relief fund. And can you imagine being a retail store without e-commerce capabilities right now? eBay rolled out a $100 million e-commerce accelerator open to retailers that only have a brick and mortar presence. New businesses can run an eBay store free with guidance and resources from the company for three months, with no selling fees.

Backlash over loan distribution

There have been some real reputation losers, along with the occasional tone-deaf message. This morning Shake Shack announced it would return $10 million in funds under the PPP program – the $349 billion in forgivable loans administered by the SBA. But the announcement brought jeers on social media because Shake Shack’s motives were in question. The beef? Due to its size and number of locations, it wasn’t strictly eligible for the loan in the first place. There was similar anger over Ruth’s Chris, the swanky steakhouse chain that gobbled up $20 million in SBA funds and was a target of a fierce backlash over monies allocated to chain restaurants and other large corporations over small, locally owned and operated businesses. Similarly, many large banks charged with administering the loans with little notice have seen their reputations battered, and their best hope is a round-two from the government. Stay tuned.